Mark Hertsgaard: BP Gets a Bitter Lesson From Bhopal

Roundup: Media's Take

[Mark Hertsgaard (markhertsgaard.com), a fellow of The Open Society Institute, is The Nation's environment correspondent. He has covered climate change for twenty years and is the author of six books, including the forthcoming Generation Hot: Living Through the Storm of Climate Change.]

...The parallels between the Bhopal chemical explosion of 1984 and the BP underwater oil gusher of today are downright eerie. In the lead-up to each catastrophe, warnings of impending disaster were repeatedly given--and repeatedly ignored, by corporate officials as well as their supposed government regulators. In the case of BP, Abrahm Lustgarten and Ryan Knutson of ProPublica report, "a series of internal investigations over the past decade warned senior BP managers that the company repeatedly disregarded safety and environmental rules and risked a serious accident if it did not change its ways."

Likewise, a 1973 Union Carbide document, signed by Anderson himself, noted that the technology to be used in the Bhopal factory was "unproven." A safety review conducted by Union Carbide experts in 1982 warned of a "serious potential for sizable releases of toxic materials" at the factory. Nevertheless, Union Carbide and later Dow have always insisted that the explosion was caused by sabotage.

What's more, even though Union Carbide's own safety experts had warned two years before of a "serious potential for sizable releases of toxic materials," managers of the Bhopal factory had no system in place to warn and evacuate residents in the event of emergency. Indian government officials likewise failed to insist upon such basic precautions.

In a second parallel to today's BP oil gusher, once the predictable disaster took place in Bhopal, company officials downplayed its scope and severity in their statements to the media and the public. As thousands of survivors streamed into Bhopal hospitals that night, Union Carbide spokesmen denied that methyl isocyanate was poisonous, calling it "nothing more than a potent tear gas." BP's CEO Tony Hayward was equally candid in the early days of the current crisis, assuring outsiders that the environmental impact of his company's deep sea gusher would be "very, very modest."

And one more parallel: when it came time to be held accountable for the destruction, Union Carbide and Dow Chemical did all they could to minimize their financial and legal exposure, again with ample assistance from the relevant government authorities. Indian government officials that did try to pursue justice were repeatedly thwarted. In 1991, an Indian court ordered Union Carbide officials, including Anderson, to face criminal charges. After Anderson and the other defendants failed to appear, India's Supreme Court named them "proclaimed absconders"—that is, fugitives from justice—and pressed for their extradition. After sitting on the extradition request for years, the US State Department refused it without explanation in September 2004....
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